Wallace and Gromit: Engaging, noble, and content not to conquer the world

Wallace and Gromit. ()
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Simon Abrams

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Whatever happened to Wallace and Gromit? At one point, the British claymation duo, an eccentric cheese-loving mad scientist and his dog, were poised to be the next big British import. They could have rivaled Pixar.

By the time the first Wallace and Gromit feature, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, came out, Toy Story 1 and 2 and The Incredibles had already been released. The year was 2005 and Nick Park had already made three Wallace and Gromit shorts, two of which had won Oscars. Thanks to Aardman Animations’ deal with Dreamworks Pictures, Wallace and Gromit still looked like a small but viable alternative to Pixar, especially since The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which screens this Saturday and Sunday at 12:15pm at Williamsburg’s Nitehawk Cinema, also would go on to win an Oscar.

So where did Wallace and Gromit go after that?

When Aardman first teamed up with Dreamworks in 1997, Park’s star was ascending. In 2000, after winning his first two Oscars, he worked with Aardman and Dreamworks on Chicken Run, which was both a critical and financial hit.

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After that, Park spent years working on Curse of the Were-Rabbit, a charming follow-up to his previous half-hour Wallace and Gromit serials. Making a feature-length version proved to be a challenge because of how much time creating the sets and filming various claymation models took.

Which is why was so refreshing that Curse of the Were-Rabbit, at 90 minutes, managed to be as light and fun to watch as Park’s previous shorts were. It was more of the same stuff Park’s fans already knew and expected of him, but there’s no harm in that. Its brilliance is in the execution.

Apart from the fact that a second Wallace and Gromit feature would have taken several more years for Park to make, part of the self-limiting pleasures of the Wallace and Gromit stories has always been their quaintly unambitious scope. In Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Wallace (Peter Sallis) and his silent canine partner Gromit try to solve their never-named village’s pest problem. Droves of rabbits are nibbling on the locals’ vegetable gardens. Wallace captures them one by one with his Bunvac 6000, an enormous vacuum with tentacle-like hoses, and keeps them in makeshift pens.

Unfortunately, Wallace inadvertently creates an even bigger pest problem when he tries to socialize the rabbits with a brainwave machine. He accidentally turns himself into the titular monster, a creature who conjures images of Oliver Reed in Curse of the Werewolf, the now-canonical 1961 Hammer film. During the day, Wallace is a mild-mannered man obsessed with catching rabbits and courting Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter), a local aristocrat who is utterly charmed by Wallace’s humane methods of pest control. At night, Wallace is a giant, furry, vegetable-garden-ravaging juggernaut. So, as in both The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave, it’s up to Gromit, Wallace’s faithful friend, to save the day.

With the exception of A Grand Day Out, the Wallace and Gromit movies all adhere to the same formula: A mystery that has inadvertently been created by Wallace’s newest invention needs to be solved, and with the considerable help of Gromit, Wallace makes things right, usually after a spectacular chase scene. This is even true of 2008’s A Matter of Loaf and Death, the most recent Wallace and Gromit film, and the only one Park has made since Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

What really distinguishes the five Wallace and Gromit stories from each other is the little genre-specific flourishes Park throws into each one. The Wrong Trousers is a fun caper film starring a sinister penguin jewel-thief, while A Grand Day Out is a science-fiction adventure story set on the moon.

Likewise, Curse of the Were-Rabbit is a clever horror comedy. It’s got the two key elements that any good horror film needs: a memorable villain and sex appeal. Firstly, Park and his three co-writers created worthy rivals for Wallace and Gromit: Lord Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes), a pugnacious hunter named after fictitious British adventure hero Allan Quartermain of King Solomon’s Mines, and his dog Philip. And when it comes to sex appeal, Carter’s Lady Tottington fittingly lays it on thick in one very memorable scene, in which she shows off her prize giant carrot to Wallace and describes it in hilariously overheated terms: “Isn’t it the most sumptuous, succulent specimen you’ve ever seen?”

This Wallace and Gromit film, like the others, was well-liked by American audiences and critics. Yet the franchise never became truly big; Park and his team simply could not compete with Pixar’s insane rate of production. While Aardman and Dreamworks have made a couple of other successful features distributed in the U.S., including Flushed Away and last year’s Arthur Christmas, Park has always been hands-on with the Wallace and Gromit pictures, which means that making them hasn't been, and will never be, a fast process.

Meanwhile, Park and his crew haven’t done anything to substantially change Wallace and Gromit’s narrative template since The Wrong Trousers.

For his next act, Park will undoubtedly come up with something just as clever and charming as his other films that he can putter around with for a couple of years. But while it’s hard to say goodbye to Wallace and Gromit, I’d love to see what would happen if, for their next act, Park, Aardman and Dreamworks tried something else.